Posted by Sir Randal MacNiall Bundy on January 22, 1998 at 05:43:38:
Who Were the Normans?
The Viking raids and invasions of the ninth and tenth century led
to Scandinavian settlement in many parts of Europe. One of these
places was north-western France, in the area now known as Normandy.
This name literally means the ‘land of the Northmen’.
Although originally taken by force this Scandinavian colony soon
became a part of the Frankish kingdom, and it's ‘Viking’ leader
became a duke. As time went by the dukedom was enlarged, and the
inhabitants became less and less Viking, and more Frankish in their
way of life until eventually they became the people now known as the
It is important to remember, when talking about Norman social organis-
ation, that both in Normandy and in Britain after The Conquest the
true ‘Normans’ tended to form the ruling elite. The native population
became the ‘commoners’. The Normans did, however, have their own terms
for these lower ranks. The lowest of these ranks were the landless
Serfs, bondsmen who laboured or looked after animals, approximately
equivalent to a Saxon theow. Above the serfs were the Villeins, freemen
who were tied to their lord’s land, equivalent to the Saxon gebur.
Next came the Cottars, men not tied to the land but expected to work
for a local lord for one day a week, equivalent to the Saxon kotsetla.
The highest of the ‘non-military’ ranks were the Freeholders who were
not tied to a lord, much like the Saxon geneat.
Of the ‘military’ ranks, the lowest rank was the Sergens, a profes-
sional footsoldier, literally ‘one who serves’. Above the Sergens was
the Vavasseur, a soldier who equated to a squire, and who would have
probably served a particular knight.
The knight or Miles was the lowest of the military elite, a well equip-
ped and well trained fighting man similar to the Saxon thegn or huscarl.
Over the Miles was the Baron, the lowest rank of the nobility and a
senior knight. Above the Baron was the Comes, or count, responsible for
a whole district or county, much like a Saxon eolderman, and directly
serving the duke. Before the conquest of Britain the highest rank
amongst the Normans was Dux, or duke. In fact the title ‘Duke of
Normandy’ was held by an english King from 1066 until 1204.
By c. 900 the Vikings had ravaged northern France to such an extent
that there was little plunder to be found along the rivers which had
formed their major avenue of attack. Ironically it was a Danish Army
(under a leader called Hrolf), which arrived in 911 to pillage the
lower Seine Valley that created the Vikings’ only lasting impact on
Hrolf attempted to besiege Chatres without success, but his army was
such a threat to the Seine valley, that Charles, King of the Franks,
negotiated a treaty at St. Clair-sur-Epte. Under this treaty all the
land bounded by the rivers Brestle, Epte, Avre and Dives was granted
to the Danes; effectively the land they already controlled. By 924 the
Franks were forced to grant the Danes the districts of Bayeux, Exmes
and Sees, and in 933 the Cotenin and Avranchin.
Hrolf was baptised in 912 and became known as Rollo. Within two genera-
tions he and his followers had adopted the Franks’ language, religion,
laws, customs, political organisation and methods of warfare. They had
become Franks in all but name, for they were now known as Normans, men
of Normandy - the land of the Nordmanni or Northmen.
The Normans’ love of the sea and their dynamism led to commercial pros-
perity. By the middle of the 11th century Normandy was one of the most
powerful states in Christendom. Desire for conquest, in conjunction
with limited available land led many Normans to pursue military goals
abroad: to Spain to fight the Moors; to Byzantium to fight the Turks;
to Sicily in 1061 to fight the Saracens; and of course to England in
In Normandy William ‘the Bastard’ succeeded to the dukedom at the age
of seven or eight. For the next twelve years of his minority the duke-
dom was in a constant state of anarchy. The rebellion of the barons
came to a head in 1047, when the whole of lower Normandy rose against
him. With the help of his feudal overlord Henry I of France, William,
aged twenty, crushed the revolt on the field of Val es Dunes, near
Caen. The castles of the rebellious barons were razed and the nobles
never challenged the duke’s power again.
Norman relations with Anglo-Saxon England were uncomplicated. As the
Normans became Christian and adopted the French language, so their
dukes found a common interest with the rulers of southern Britain in
closing the English Channel to Viking fleets. This alliance broke up
when the Normans supported Edward and the House of Wessex against Cnut
of Denmark in their struggle for the English throne. When Edward (the
Confessor) returned from exile in Normandy to take the English crown in
1042 he was understandably pro-Norman. It was probably because of these
pro-Norman sympathies that William's claim to the throne had any credib-
The Norman dukes’ fear of Scandinavian intervention contributed to
William’s alliance with Flanders in 1066. Other victims of Viking raids
had been the Channel Islands or Iles Normandes. These islands were not
a part of the duchy of Normandy in 1066; instead they were a personal
dependency of Duke William, as were the Counties of Brittany and Maine.
All these areas contributed men and ships to the ‘great expedition’
Many Norman warriors, administrators and churchmen had served in
England under Edward the Confessor. Some were responsible for reorgan-
ising English defences along the Welsh borders around 1055, although
their attempts to introduce Norman-French cavalry tactics to the
English ultimately failed.
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